Annie Dillard is talking about insects in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. She says she never asks why of a vulture or shark but she asks why of almost every insect she sees. They reproduce, or have the possibility to reproduce, in huge numbers. They, she says, are “an assault on all human value, all hope of a reasonable god.”
I understand exactly what she means. Insects are small, unpredictable, hard to see, unavoidable, and they are everywhere. Some of them are also dangerous or at least threaten to cause pain from bites or stings. I’ve been stung by bees before and bitten by a fire ant more than once. I get bit by mosquitoes too now and then but I am lucky enough to not have a reaction to their bite. I used to think it was because I am somehow magically special, but I suspect it has to do with the fact that I am already amped up on antihistamines because of all my allergies so mosquito bites end up having little or no effect.
The more time I spend in the garden, the more I appreciate insects. Not only are they necessary for my garden to grow, but they also help breakdown organic matter that feeds the soil and then feeds the plants that feed me. There are insects that hunt other insects too and some of them spin gorgeous webs. And insects are also food for bats and birds. I used to think there were good bugs and bad bugs and would freak out when I cam across bad bugs in the garden, they’re going to hurt my plants! Kill the bad bugs! Kill the bad bugs!
As an organic gardener this usually meant drowning beetles in a dish of soapy water, spraying the aphids with soapy water, squishing, or tossing that huge white grub onto the sidewalk or street. And as a vegan, I’d always feel vaguely guilty about killing them.
But the more I read about garden ecosystems and creating a balance, I am less inclined to label insects good or bad. They all have their place and when the system is in balance, so are the insects. This last summer when I discovered aphids on some yellow coneflowers I left them alone and watched to see what would happen. They did not spread to any adjacent coneflowers nor did they harm the plant. Soon after I discovered them, other insects discovered them too and kept them in check.
The insects I actually had trouble with last summer were slugs. The only thing they ate enough of to cause damage was my potatoes, but it also turned out that it was mostly my fault. I used straw for hilling up the potatoes and because the summer was so wet, it created a slug paradise in the potato patch. Lesson learned.
I totally understand the creepy-crawly factor of insects. I can appreciate them but—Ack! get off my hand! It takes great strength on my part to not freak out when I find a spider on my arm when I stand up from weeding. However, I was left completely baffled when an acquaintance asked me for some advice on killing her weedy lawn. I asked if she was going to do some garden beds. No way she said, I don’t garden and I try to spend as little time as possible outdoors because I can’t stand all the bugs. You mean mosquitoes? I asked. No, all bugs. Even worms and butterflies? All bugs, she said. They all freak me out and I hate them.
There is no way to respond to that.
Another person I know regularly tells me how much she hates mosquitoes, how she wishes a plague would wipe them all from the earth. I understand mosquitoes are a vector for diseases. We have west nile virus here in Minnesota. And I know thousands get sick and die in other parts of the world every year because of malaria. Still, mosquitoes are a vital part of the ecosystem and to wipe them all from the face of the earth would be a huge mistake.
You will probably not be surprised to learn that I have either a spider or old spiderwebs in pretty much every corner or every room of the house. If one should fall into the bathtub or sink, it gets rescued. We get house centipedes of sometimes gigantic size in summer. We don’t kill those either, we just let them be. Waldo, however, likes to snack on them sometimes especially when he can catch one in the bathtub. If a bee or wasp gets in the house, we trap it and release it outdoors. If a fly gets in the house, it gets shooed out the door too or Waldo catches it and eats it.
We sometimes get ants in the kitchen in spring. We sweep them up and take them outside. Now and then they are too many and relocation won’t work. We feel really bad spraying them with vinegar and water. However, I think we may have found a formula that keeps them from coming indoors. Last year in early spring before the ground thawed, we liberally poured cheap grocery store cinnamon around the edges of the kitchen (indoors) where the ants generally come in. It made the kitchen smell lovely, it is nontoxic and not a single ant came into the house. We’ll be trying it again this coming spring and crossing our fingers it wasn’t a strange coincidence.
I understand being afraid of insects. I struggle with it all the time. It has taken me a couple years and lots of careful breathing and self-talk to be able to work in the garden near the anise hyssop when it is blooming because it is humming with bees. To be on the ground, weeding beneath it or next to it with bees buzzing in my ears and around my head is unnerving. As long as I move slowly and carefully, the bees don’t look at me twice. I am not what they want. And yet it is not easy for me to be there but it is getting easier.
Something that helps is taking the time to look closely at the bees while I am standing up and they are busy working. There are an amazing variety of bees and they are fascinating to watch. The buzzing can actually be soothing.
I am beginning to extend this curtesy of observation to other insects like ants and grasshoppers and beetles of various kinds. At first glance they are ugly but the more I look, the more I realize how beautiful they are in their own way. Perhaps more than any other species on earth insects are the most wild, the most uncontrollable. Their wildness is terrifying. But I aim to keep observing them, to keep breathing carefully, to discover if they might not have something to teach me.